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13 Moments in Black Celebrity HIV/AIDS Activism

February 7, 2013

13 Moments in Black Celebrity HIV/AIDS Activism

In past years, there's been some criticism of black pop culture icons who don't use their celebrity to bring attention to key social concerns. In a recent interview, longtime activist and actor Harry Belafonte criticized black celebrity power-couple Jay-Z and Beyonce, saying they've "turned their back on social responsibility," and insinuating that celebrities with political agendas are a rarity nowadays.

The writing's on the wall: More black celebrities need to be on board with HIV/AIDS awareness, especially because African-American communities are disproportionately affected by the virus. Though more needs to be done, we can take a moment to acknowledge and thank some of the performers, award winners, divas and authors who've used their social status to educate the public around HIV/AIDS. The common thread among them? Talent, passion and the desire to use their celebrity for good.

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Sheryl Lee Ralph

Sheryl Lee Ralph Founds The DIVA Foundation (1990)

Sheryl Lee Ralph was starring as Deena Jones in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls in 1982, around the same time that "there was this silent disease going around called GRID (Gay Related Immune Disorder). And you know, nobody wanted to talk about it," she told TheBody.com. In 1990, she founded The DIVA (Divinely Inspired Victoriously AWARE) Foundation to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS for men, women and children around the globe. For more than 20 years, The DIVA Foundation has presented "DIVAS Simply Singing!" each year to raise funds for HIV/AIDS awareness.

The DIVA Foundation's awareness campaigns include town hall meetings, prevention seminars, free HIV testing and counseling -- and Sometimes I Cry, a one-woman show written and performed by Sheryl Lee Ralph. Still a committed advocate, in 2008 Ralph launched a website called testtogether.org along with her husband, Pennsylvania Sen. Vincent Hughes. The site encourages couples to accompany one another to get tested for HIV.

Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson Publicly Announces His HIV Status (1991)

On Nov. 7, 1991, Magic Johnson announced that he is HIV positive, and retired from professional basketball to pursue an HIV advocacy agenda. What was the biggest takeaway from Johnson's reveal so early in the epidemic? It helped raise awareness that everyone was vulnerable to HIV -- especially those communities where HIV was previously not believed to be a problem, including heterosexual men, African-American communities and the sports world. With HIV in the late '80s and early '90s being associated almost exclusively with gay, white men and intravenous drug users, to see a healthy, straight, black man infected through heterosexual sex was a wake-up call for many people to begin some very difficult, but very necessary, conversations.

"For the kids -- that's why I am going to be a spokesperson for this HIV virus," Magic said on the day of his historic disclosure. "Because I want them to understand that safe sex is the way to go. I think sometimes we think, 'Well, only gay people can get it.' 'It's not going to happen to me.' Well, here I am saying, 'It can happen to anybody.'"

Two years ago, in 2011, many marked the 20-year anniversary of his announcement by looking at what his admission meant for the community. TheBody.com's own Kellee Terrell wrote: "It's quite disheartening that Magic's message of 'black straight men can contract HIV through heterosexual sex' has gotten buried in our own homophobic rhetoric." With many years passing since a major celebrity has spoken about their HIV-positive status, many feel that the lack of a major public figure to speak for the disease has led to a malaise in activism. And, no, Magic Johnson is NOT cured of HIV.

TLC

Female Hip-Hop Trio TLC Puts on Condoms -- on Top of Their Clothes (1992)

Watch the video for "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg" and you'll see that TLC was up-front and in-your-face about AIDS awareness. They were known for some pretty outrageous outfits, mostly baggy and boldly-colored. But, in the early '90s, they began to pin condoms to their outfits -- and member Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes often wore a condom behind the left lens of her glasses. In 1992, Lopes told the LA Times: "Kids listen to performers and we have a duty to give them certain critical information. We wanted something eye-catching, so when kids see the condoms, they ask why do we wear condoms and talk about condoms? That brings up the issue of safe sex. The point is to make condoms something kids aren't afraid of or ashamed of." Lopes passed away in a car accident in Honduras in 2002. The two remaining group members, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, launched "Dialogues: Education and Treatment for a Well-Planned Future," an HIV/AIDS education effort.

Salt N Pepa

Salt N Pepa "Talk About AIDS" (1993)

Salt N Pepa, a rap trio including the two eponymous frontwomen and DJ Spinderella, started a lot of controversy when they came out with the song "Let's Talk About Sex" in 1991. The song talked about safe sex, the positives and negatives of sex, and the stigma around sex in popular culture.

While this 1991 hit opened up the idea of being able to talk frankly about sexual safety and pleasure, their remix "Let's Talk About AIDS" named exactly what they wanted to inform about. The lyrics were changed to discuss how the virus is spread, how to negotiate condom usage, and to dismantle the stigma around HIV/AIDS. They rapped: "Don't dismiss, diss or blacklist the topic / that ain't gon' stop it."

Rae Lewis-Thornton

Rae Lewis-Thornton Reveals Her Status on the Cover of Essence Magazine (1994)

Having served as the national youth director for the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns, Rae Lewis-Thornton had political aspirations. She left those behind when she was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 23 in 1986. She learned of her status after donating blood to the Red Cross. In 1994, she revealed her status on the cover of Essence Magazine.

After that, Rae became a journalist dedicated to telling the stories of those living with HIV/AIDS. Rae served as a contributing editor for WBBM-TV, a CBS-owned and operated television station, for an ongoing series of personal stories of people living with HIV/AIDS, for which she received an Emmy Award. Now, she continues to use media -- social media -- to spread her message of HIV awareness. She held the first HIV/AIDS "tweet-up" in the U.S. in July 2010. Nowadays, she blogs with both video and text on her own website and on TheBody.com to tell the story of being a Diva Living With AIDS.

Hydeia Broadbent

Hydeia Broadbent Addresses Republican National Convention About AIDS (1996)

Hydeia Broadbent was abandoned and adopted as an infant in Las Vegas. She was born with HIV, and it progressed to AIDS by the time she was 3. Her prognosis was that she would not live past the age of 5. Hydeia says, "People think because I was born with HIV my story does not apply to them. Well, this same disease I am living with is the same disease you can get if you don't practice safe sex and know your HIV status and the HIV status of your sexual partner."

At 12 years old she spoke at the 1996 Republican National Convention, telling the audience, "I am the future and I have AIDS." Widely considered the most active youth to speak about HIV since Ryan White, she now tours worldwide to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. She has appeared on Oprah, 20/20, Good Morning America, and Nickelodeon. She has been featured in The New York Times, People, Essence, Ebony, POZ and more. She has also spoken at Duke University, Morehouse School of Medicine, Spelman College, UCLA, USC and Howard University.

America Is Dying Slowly

Rappers Come Together to Release America Is Dying Slowly (1996)

America Is Dying Slowly (a backronym for AIDS) is a compilation album released in June of 1996 that featured many big name hip-hop acts talking about HIV/AIDS and reaching out to African-American men. The project was spurred in part by West Coast rapper Eazy-E's death from complications of AIDS, which had rocked the hip-hop world the year before.

Some featured artists include Mobb Deep, De La Soul, Coolio, Biz Markie, Fat Joe, Common and Wu-Tang Clan. Upon its release, it was dubbed "a masterpiece" by The Source. America Is Dying Slowly was the first hip-hop-focused album to be released by the Red Hot Organization -- an organization dedicated to fighting AIDS through pop culture -- in a series called the Red Hot AIDS Benefit Series.

Common continued his activism by becoming the spokesperson for the Knowing Is Beautiful campaign.

Phill Wilson Jr.

Founding of the Black AIDS Institute (1999)

Founded in 1999 by activist Phill Wilson, Jr., the Black AIDS Institute's mission is to stop the AIDS pandemic in black communities by engaging and mobilizing black organizations and individuals. An activist in the HIV/AIDS fight for more than 30 years, Mr. Wilson remarks, "I used to say that I didn't believe I would live to see the end of this epidemic. I don't say that anymore. I believe that it is entirely possible that I will see the end of this epidemic, but we are at one of those deciding moments. Whether we end it now or not is totally up to us."

Black AIDS Institute counts many African-American celebrities, including actors Danny Glover and Hill Harper (also profiled here), among its supporters. The organization is behind some of the most recognizable HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns in communities of color. Its campaign Greater than AIDS creates videos, billboards and other eye-catching, affective media to reaffirm that idea that we all have a role to play in stopping the epidemic. The campaign asks people to be informed, speak openly, use protection, get tested and treated, and get involved in their communities.

Black AIDS Institute also operates the social networks LIFEAIDS, a network of black college students involved in campus-based HIV awareness efforts, and the Black Gay Men's Network. It also helps individuals and groups get involved through the African American HIV University (AAHU), a comprehensive training and capacity building fellowship program.

Danny Glover

Danny Glover Writes a Letter to Congress (2000)

Actor Danny Glover is a longtime HIV/AIDS activist and a board member of the Black AIDS Institute. He is also a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations' UNICEF program. Having taken up many causes, including the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and supporting unions and farm workers, HIV/AIDS is a true passion of his -- his brother was diagnosed with AIDS. He lent his voice to the HIV awareness movement when he wrote to Congress in 2000, applauding it and the UN for making a commitment to defining HIV/AIDS as a foreign policy and development issue on its agenda.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela Founds "46664" (2002)

Nelson Mandela is a world-famous anti-apartheid activist and politician who was president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1964 and given the prison number 46664 ("four double six six four"), as he was the 466th prisoner at the Robben Island prison in the year 1964. In 1994, four years after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa, which has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the entire world. Mandela often says his biggest regret during his presidency was not paying enough attention to the AIDS epidemic -- and the AIDS epidemic hit him personally in 2005 when his son passed away.

Since the end of his presidency, he has become an extremely outspoken AIDS activist, and has founded the 46664 Foundation. Mandela gave his prison number to the organization "as a permanent reminder of the sacrifices he was prepared to make for a humanitarian and social just cause he passionately believed in." In attempting to engage youth all over the world, 46664 has been responsible for high-profile 46664 concerts over the past few years. Concerts have been held in South Africa, Spain, Norway and London, featuring very high profile acts like Beyonce, U2, Annie Lennox and Jimmy Cliff.

Eve for MAC Cosmetics

MAC AIDS Fund Brings People of Color to the Forefront of Their Popular Campaigns (2004)

Whereas male rap artists made an entire rap album about AIDS in 1996, female rappers and singers brought attention to the AIDS epidemic through the Viva Glam campaign of MAC Cosmetics' AIDS Fund. MAC AIDS Fund puts out specific shades and brands of lipstick, and the entirety of the purchase price goes toward fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa. Tapped for the first Viva Glam campaign were artists Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliott, Lil' Kim and Eve, all of whom are black women.

Viva Glam's most recent spokespeople, Nicki Minaj and Ricky Martin, continue the trend of artists of color spreading messages around HIV awareness.

Hill Harper

Hill Harper Fulfills His Destiny (2006)

Hill Harper is a film and television actor best known for his work on CSI: NY. He received the Heroes in the Struggle Award from the Black AIDS Institute in 2007. Prior to that, Harper played a prisoner with AIDS in the 2000 film The Visit .

In 2006, he wrote a book about the way HIV/AIDS affects the black community entitled Letters to a Young Brother: Manifest Your Destiny. Written as a series of letters to teenagers in the black community who need guidance, the idea came as a response to the many letters and emails he received from young people as he toured the country to speak in high schools and colleges.

Marvelyn Brown

Marvelyn Brown Tells The Naked Truth (2008)

Marvelyn Brown was diagnosed with HIV at 19 years old, unaware that the virus was spread through unprotected sex. After her diagnosis, Marvelyn Brown became an outspoken advocate and acquired a hefty, hefty resume of speaking engagements and community work. In 2004, she won the Positive Youth Leadership Award from the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA). In 2007, she won an Emmy for her public service announcement with MTV's "Think HIV" campaign, and in 2009, she won the DO Something Award, which resulted in her face and story being featured on millions of Doritos bags nationwide. Brown also wrote a memoir, The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful, and (HIV) Positive.

In her book, she says, "How did I not know that the virus was sexually transmitted? I felt I had been robbed by my community, my school and my church. The mantras I had heard over and over again growing up -- 'Don't do drugs; don't get pregnant; don't smoke' -- suddenly seemed so worthless. Never had someone mentioned the possibility of me, Marvelyn Brown, contracting HIV from unprotected sex. I had seen it as something only Africans or gay men got." She expanded on that quote in an interview with TheBody.com.

She has appeared on MTV, BET, America's Next Top Model and Oprah. She has also toured colleges and universities worldwide. She is now the CEO and an independent HIV consultant for Marvelous Connections.




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